Delirium and dementia are fairly common in people of a certain age, but what is the difference between dementia and delirium and how can we tell if this is a normal part of growing old, or the symptom of an underlying disease?
What is the difference between dementia and delirium?
People suffering from dementia or delirium can present very similar symptoms, which is why the two conditions are often referred to in the same context. The two conditions are as a result of impaired cognitive function and in both cases the person will become confused and disoriented. But although there are many similarities between the two illnesses, there are also some important differences between dementia and delirium, so it can be helpful to gain a greater understanding of the two diseases.
Dementia is normally associated with old age, but although it typically afflicts the older generation, it is actually caused by a number of different degenerative brain diseases and symptoms of dementia can also develop as the result of a stroke or brain injury.
Delirium is a state of mental confusion usually caused by an acute illness or a toxic reaction to drugs. A good example of a delirious state is when a patient is suffering from a fever and begins to hallucinate.
The onset of the symptoms of dementia is usually fairly gradual, with the possible exception of dementia symptoms caused by a stroke, and in some cases the cognitive decline is so slow that the patient can continue to enjoy a productive life for many years. By contrast, the onset of the symptoms of delirium is rapid and they have a definite starting point.
The effects of dementia are usually permanent and once the patient’s mental faculties begin to decline, progress of the disease can be slowed down, but not halted. Delirium is usually only temporary, although it can sometimes last for a few weeks or longer.
Dementia is caused by a disease of the brain, for example Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, whereas a state of delirium is symptomatic of another health condition, for example an infection, drugs, dehydration, or even a lack of sleep.
There are also subtle differences in the symptoms of dementia and delirium. Delirium affects attention whereas dementia affects memory, although attention will be affected in severe cases of dementia. Consciousness is also severely impaired in patients suffering from delirium, but not in dementia cases, apart from late stage dementia. Language skills are affected in both cases, but delirious people are more likely to be incoherent or unable to speak at all.
Which is more serious: delirium or dementia?
In the long term, dementia is more serious as it is a permanent condition and there is no cure, but in the short term, delirium should be considered the more serious of the two conditions and anyone suffering from delirium is in need of urgent medical attention in order to find out what underlying health problem is causing the condition.